One of the principal themes of Eric Metaxas’ latest book—If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty—is that America needs virtuous leaders if our freedom is to endure.  Having read and reviewed Metaxas’ book so recently, I found it impossible not to ruminate on his argument while listening to Ted Cruz’s stunning “non-endorsement” of Donald Trump at last night’s session of the Republican National Convention.  Cruz’s speech immediately went under the media microscope, in part because it was almost the first surprising thing to happen at a national party convention in the past half century, but also because almost every talking head who weighed in on the question last night agreed that what Cruz had done was politically “risky.”  Should Trump go on to win the presidency [involuntary shudder] or come close enough to victory that Cruz’s stance could be seen as responsible for his defeat, the consensus was that we’ll remember the Texas senator’s speech as the beginning of the end of his political career.

That caused my historian’s alarm to go off, because what we call “politically risky” might very well be what the Founding Fathers would have called “virtuous.”  Let’s remember what the Founders meant by the term.  When they argued that virtue was indispensable to the success of free institutions, they defined the concept differently than we might today.  Virtue, as they understood it, had almost nothing to do with sexual morality—something we’re likely to think of if we hear the word now—and everything to do with one’s willingness to sacrifice personal interest for the benefit of the common good.

Gilbert Stuart completed this portrait of the first president the year of Washington's "Farewell Address"

Gilbert Stuart completed this portrait of the first president the year of Washington’s “Farewell Address”

When the framers of the Constitution gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 to create “a more perfect union,” their belief in the importance of virtue contributed to two other working hypotheses.  First, political factions were more likely to be fueled by self-interest than self-denial.  This is why George Washington denounced them in his Farewell Address, advising the American people to “avoid the baneful effects of the spirit of party” and reminding them that partisan spirit too often “agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms” [and] kindles the animosity of one part against another.”  (What would he say about American politics in 2016?)

Second, the Founders understood that, in a free society in which the people could easily get caught up in self-destructive partisan passions, it was sometimes the duty of the virtuous statesman to defy the majority, even at the cost of popular condemnation.  And so when James Madison and Alexander Hamilton penned the Federalist essays after the Philadelphia Convention adjourned, they repeatedly noted that one of the strengths of the new Constitution would be the features that would keep the government accountable to the people while still shielding officeholders from undue popular pressure.  The indirect election of the Senate, for example, would enable that body to “refine and enlarge” public sentiments to arrive at official policies superior to what the people clamored for.  The convoluted election of the president would free the executive to stand against popular passions “when occasions present themselves in which the interests of the people are at variance with their inclinations,” i.e., when what the people want would be bad for them.

In If You Can Keep It, Eric Metaxas seems to think that our cultural commitment to virtue held strong until about the time that the Beatles came to America, but the belief in virtue as the Founders understood it was almost extinct within a half century of Independence.  The best evidence for this comes from the crucial presidential election of 1824.

1824 Election MapThe 1824 election had played out pretty much the way that the framers of the Constitution had expected most elections to unfold. There had been a large number of serious candidates on the ballot in the general election: Secretary of the Treasury William Crawford, of Georgia; Kentuckian Henry Clay, Speaker of the House of Representatives; Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, of Massachuetts; and Major General Andrew Jackson, of Tennessee.  Predictably given such a large field of candidates, no individual had received a majority in the Electoral College, which meant that the outcome had to be determined by a run-off election among the top three finishers in the House of Representatives. (Clay, who finished fourth, was the odd man out.) Finally, in the run-off in the House the congressmen had cast their ballots without necessarily feeling constrained by the popular vote in their home states. Although many did so, overall they favored the second-place finisher, Adams, over the first-place finisher, Jackson. There was nothing unconstitutional about their doing so, and nothing necessarily insidious in their decision that Adams was the more qualified. (In terms of political experience, he unquestionably was.)

Key to the outcome of the run-off in the House was Henry Clay’s decision to endorse John Quincy Adams, despite the fact that his Kentucky constituents overwhelming favored Jackson once Clay himself had been eliminated from contention.  Clay justified his decision by appealing to the obligations of virtue as the Founders would have understood it.  In a letter intended for public circulation, Clay observed,

My position, in regard to the Presidential election, is highly critical, & such as to leave me no path on which I can move without censure; I have pursued, in regard to it, the rule which I always observe in the discharge of my public duty.  I have interrogated my conscience as to what I ought to do, & that faithful guide tells me that I ought to vote for Mr. Adams. . . . I am, & shall continue to be, assailed by all the abuse, which partisan zeal, malignity, & rivalry can invent.  I shall risk, without emotion, these effusions of malice, & remain unshaken in my purpose.  What is a public man worth, if he will not expose himself, on fit occasions, for the good of his country?

Henry Clay sat for this portrait in 1824.

Henry Clay sat for this portrait in 1824.

“I have interrogated my conscience,” Clay explained, and it tells me how to proceed.  I know that my decision will be unpopular, he went on in so many words, but that must not deter me.  The path of virtue practically ensures that the virtuous statesman will be viciously assailed, but sometimes that’s what the good of the country requires of him.  Jackson supporters replied—and here is what is supremely significant—that it is never virtuous to oppose the will of the people (a variation on the blasphemy that the voice of the people is the voice of God).  As the editor of the pro-Jackson Washington Gazette cried out in disbelief:

If the People thought Gen. Jackson worthy, is it for Henry Clay to pronounce him unworthy?  Is it for him to say to his fellow citizens, ‘You shall not have the man you wish, but the man I will’?  No.—Henry Clay himself has inflicted the deepest wound on the fundamental principle of our government.  He has insulted and struck down the majesty of the People.

If you’re familiar with the details of this watershed election, you know that the story doesn’t end here.  When John Quincy Adams subsequently named Clay his Secretary of State, Jackson supporters immediately screamed that a “Corrupt Bargain” had been struck and Clay had sold his support in the run-off in exchange for a cabinet post.  Historians have never uncovered any evidence to prove that this actually happened, but the charge was politically useful, and the Jacksonians wielded it with a vengeance.  Four years later, the people had their way, and the nation’s first populist president—whose primary policy accomplishment would be the passage of the Indian Removal Act—was elevated to the presidency.

Was Henry Clay motivated by love of country or by political ambition?  I don’t know.  What I do know is that he still spoke in the language of the Founders, who assumed that the exercise of virtue might require defiance of the public and usually exacted a personal cost.  That view was already dying out by the 1820s.

Was Ted Cruz motivated by love of country or political ambition in last night’s non-endorsement of Donald Trump?  I don’t know.  It’s quite possible, as several op-ed writers were quick to insinuate, that he made a calculated decision about how best to advance his own political future.  I’m not a big Ted Cruz fan, but I’ll say this much: In refusing to fall in line behind his party and in delivering an address sure to elicit scorn and derision across the lecture hall, Cruz’s stance looks on the surface more virtuous than anything else I’ve noticed from the convention so far.

Your thoughts?

Ted Cruz Booed After Refusing To Endorse Donald Trump In RNC Speech

Ted Cruz Booed After Refusing To Endorse Donald Trump In RNC Speech


  1. I remember studying this election in graduate school. The claim that the vox populi is always right is one that does not work on a regular basis. For example, Edmund Burke stated that “your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” This statement would seem to be in accord with the judgments of our founders who placed structural barriers(designed in part to prevent authoritarian rule) into our constitution and by constitutionally recognizing federalism. Interesting enough, Burke was elected to parliament for six years as a member from Bristol but was not able to keep his seat since he was voted from office and served the rest of his career in Parliament from Malton, which was a pocket borough of Lord Rockingham.(the information on Burke(except for the quote) was a close paraphrase from the Encyclopedia Britannica online). We build into our original constitutional system with the electoral college and election to the United States Senate by state legislatures protections against majority rule. Public opinion has been wrong in the United States on slavery until our devastating Civil War(which ended slavery), the reign of Jim Crow, and other abuses against minorities or poorer white persons. Furthermore, we must remember, that other authoritarians in Europe and Latin America have been elected by the people. I myself find it impossible at this point in the election cyclye to vote for either Clinton or Trump since neither meets the minimal ethical standards that a Christian should expect of an elected representative. I cannot support Clinton because of her positions on abortion, marriage and her utter lack of a robust view of religious liberty; but, I cannot also support Trump due to his unstable personal attacks, misogyny, and utter contempt for rational discourse. I want to have a Presidential candidate earn my vote and not have either party state that I must simply vote for a candidate to keep the other person out of office. I will trust someone for such a high office only when I see evidence of adherence to ethical standards and real competence in public affairs. Both of our main party candidates fail(in my judgment) these tests

  2. I have a friend acting as delegate to the convention. He actively campaigned against Trump in the primary, but once his state voted, committed to backing Trump at the convention. He is now “100% committed to the Trump Train” as he tells it – despite the months of research and explanations as to why Trump would be a bad candidate.

    On the subject of Cruz. he thinks Cruz acted inappropriately, as if – once the nominee is official – it is the duty of every Republican to support the nominee despite any misgivings.

    My own personal opinion is that Cruz came closest to showing any kind of virtue of any Convention speaker. I did not support him in the primary, but could probably see my way to supporting him if he chose to run again.

  3. I wonder how many people willing to hold Ted Cruz to his word are divorced and have not honored their sacred vow of: “until death do us part”.

    I believe Ted Cruz has seen through the facade of Donald Trump and has decided to not to endorse such a man for president.

    There are those who believe that this is politics and if you can’t handle the heat (i.e. Trump defaming Cruz’s wife and father) then you should get out. Yet those same people claim Trump’s wife speech was wrongly criticized because the words were similar, not plagiarized.

    Too often I see in the responses of Trump supporters a blind following (perhaps allegiance?) without regard to truth or justice.

    It is my understanding that the “oath” to endorse the nominee was reneged upon by a number of candidates later on in one of the debates. Really I believe this “pledge” was a way to play gotcha on Donald Trump then backfired on the rest of them by the mainstream media looking to undermine the republican party and the conservative movement.

    Ultimately I believe Ted Cruz played the “virtuous” role here knowing he may be eliminating his shot at the presidency. I believe he stood up for what was right and as such I would stand behind Cruz for this decision.

    This, to me, is like supporting a woman who decides to exit a marriage to a husband who is abusive in one form or another. He may use the oath they took as a weapon against her decision, but she should stay strong and leave the marriage to protect both herself and potentially her husband from further harm.


  4. George Pringle

    To the degree that Ted Cruz’s speech leaves undisclosed how he is going to vote, I would say it lacks virtue as you’ve described it. Henry Clay said he would vote for Adams. Cruz didn’t tell us who he is voting for.

  5. Jack Be Nimble

    How interesting that Cruz’s critics seem to value virtue as keeping one’s word even if doing that adds support to a candidate that may be bad for the country. Cruz pledged to support the nominee of the party and he reneged on that promise claiming that he would not endorse a candidate that had insulted his wife and father. Whether these are the main reasons of not, he did not explain his position in terms of Trump’s failure to follow conservative principles when he addressed the Texas delegation the next morning. Well, whatever his motive, Senator Cruz certainly has become a very unpopular figure. Some believe he basically committed political suicide. I do believe he fully anticipated the negative reaction and was prepared to endure the criticism that would result. If it was a gamble on his political future, it was a very risky gamble.

  6. Thank you, Dr. McKenzie. I’m afraid people don’t know how to speak in the language of our founders any more. I’m afraid we have become disengaged from the purposes and virtues that motivated our ancestors. You were right; we certainly didn’t hear much of those sentiments spoken in Cleveland. I’ve been doing a lot of reading on the Revolution. I think it’s time to re-read those writings.

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